“The report of my death is greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain
Twain’s infamous quote came in a letter he wrote in May 1897. His cousin had been gravely ill. People must have confused the two men, and rumors began that Twain was dying and then was dead. Rumors are untruths, or sometimes partial truths, that are shared with lots of people who repeat it for truth. Some repeaters seem to take great pleasure in sharing what they know might not be accurate. Those are the folks we call “Gossips.” I might be talking about you, so keep reading.
Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, we had no social media. There was The Rumor Mill, of course, which kept people educated on all the wrongs we had committed, but there was no way for my choices (good and bad) to be broadcast instantly for the rest of the world to judge. I am thankful for that little gift, and I’m really sorry that those who are growing up now have their lives under a microscope, even when they don’t think it is.
You choose to wear your hair in a funky style, get unusual piercings, hang out with someone not in the ‘right’ crowd, and everyone who sees your pictures on social media suddenly makes judgments about you. They might even start rumors. “I think so and so must be easy, she’s such a big flirt with the guys,” or “Did you see that fella’ tattoos? I bet he’s just trouble waiting to happen.” So, to you I say, Be prepared. To the rest of us I say, Take a minute to think back a few years ago. If we look at youth in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, chances are we’ll see a lot of similar appearances; some have been outgrown, some have not. None should color the words you speak about a person.
The harsh reality is that the rumor that goes from your mind through your lips will travel quickly and do more damage than you might ever intend.
“How does a person’s appearance have anything to do with rumors?” you might ask. A woman with a bulging tummy often is asked when she will be having the baby, people who are completely bald are frequently assumed to be going through chemotherapy, folks who suddenly lose a lot of weight look so much different that people too quickly assume the individual is sick, and a person talking to someone of the opposite sex might be accused of cheating on a spouse or girlfriend.
Rumors are a problem and can hurt a person’s reputation and company’s business. Snopes is one of a few online sources for verifying the accuracy of many rumors, and they are a fairly accurate source to confirm or dispel the rumors you hear (www.snopes.com). A year or two ago, the Target Corporation was accused of several things: Not contributing to veteran’s funds, being owned by foreign entities, not allowing reservists called to active duty to continue their health benefits, and many other unkind and un-American things. I remember when the rumors hit social media, and people were encouraged to boycott Target by not spending any money in the stores. The truth is that Target supports Veterans, Reservists, and several other wonderful ’causes’. The Rumor Mill can be damaging. It happens in our news networks almost daily. The Right and Left put out information that contradicts the other. Friends, family, and strangers on both sides of the fence get riled and accusatory…all because of rumors.
There’s no denying the existence of rumors, and there’s no sugar-coating their impact. So maybe the point of this is to think about why people want to spread rumors, and how to stop ourselves from participating in rumor sharing.
In my research, I’ve come up with a few reasons for rumors that seem to explain what makes people want to spread rumors:
- There is an allure in sharing rumors, in the feeling of power it provides — feeling that you know something your friends do not. “You mean you didn’t know that ….”
- Fear of what might be is easy to accept as a reality. “She just doesn’t look well. I’ve heard that she is under a lot of stress.” Before you know it, you have her diagnosed with a deadly illness, when she was just tired.
- Envy of someone else’s position. “He didn’t run all of his laps. Well, I don’t see how he could have since he finished so far before I did.” It’s so easy to bring trouble upon someone else to make yourself look better.
What can we do when we are presented with rumors? We can’t control what other people choose to do or say. If you are a parent talking about someone else’s child, an employee putting down a co-worker or employer, or a friend who finds an opportunity to discredit another friend, I can tell you that it’s wrong and you do have a choice, and when we find ourselves standing there when someone starts to share a rumor, we have choices:
- Recognize rumor-type talk and walk away.
- Boldly speak up and say you’d rather not be telling things that might not be truth.
- When a rumor is shared, be fair to the person being talked about and investigate. Be like a scientist and follow the facts.
- If you know the person being talked about, go to them with what you were told so that they might defend themselves
It happens every day, and sometimes quite by accident that we find ourselves pulled into the ugliness without meaning to be. Teachers talk about students, employees talk about co-workers, and friends talk about friends. Maybe today is the day you’ll remove yourself from the unkind arena of The Rumor Mill.
If Mark Twain were living in our era, we might see a convincing photo of his body in a coffin on the cover of National Enquirer or read it in our Facebook news feed as TMZ reports another sensationalized story of non-truth. Twain did what we should do when we realize we’ve been talked about; he let them know the reports of his death were far from the truth. Rumors can kill people and corporations, usually figuratively, but often literally.